This article is a response to “The red sag”—the cover piece from our April 2017 issue
Breaking up is hard to do. The Gang of Four, who left Labour in 1981 to found the SDP, soon learnt as much. Their dream of “breaking the mould of British politics” was shattered in 1983: the cruel logic of first-past-the-post saw just six SDP MPs returned. They failed despite distinct advantages: they were heavyweight politicians and familiar faces. They could claim a distinctive position in the political centre. And they could forge an alliance with the existing Liberal Party, which brought with it a modicum of organisational strength and a modest electoral base.
Ross McKibbin highlights several serious problems for Labour, ranging from the long-term societal to more immediate concerns about Jeremy Corbyn. There is no doubt its present plight is serious: the recent defeat in Copeland was the worst by-election loss to be suffered by the main opposition party at the hands of the government since 1945. But it is quite a leap to jump, as McKibbin does, from acknowledging Labour’s current problems to proposing that the great bulk of MPs should respond by jettisoning not only Corbyn but the voluntary party that elected him.
Any attempt by Labour MPs today to form a breakaway party is unlikely to enjoy any of those advantages that the SDP enjoyed. Profile? There is hardly a single well-known politician among them. Last month YouGov asked over 3,000 respondents about 20 “leading” Labour politicians. Apart from Corbyn and his immediate predecessor, Ed Miliband, only four had been heard of by a majority. One, London mayor, Sadiq Khan, is not even in the Commons. Another, Andy Burnham, is running to be Mayor of Greater Manchester and will likely exit the Commons soon. The remaining two—Hilary Benn (60 per cent had heard of him) and Yvette Cooper (59 per cent) are middle-ranking ex-ministers, but no more, and neither is especially popular—only 22 per cent of those who had heard of Benn said they liked him; the equivalent figure was just 16 per cent for Cooper. None of this should come as a surprise. Corbyn initially won the leadership because none of his opponents could outgun him in the popularity and charisma stakes. And while charisma is always a desirable quality in a leader, it is essential for anyone trying to establish the credibility…